When life after high school does not go as planned: A different kind of grad story

·7 min read
Harbour View High School graduates David Patel-Crabtree, 21, and his sister, Soraya  Patel-Crabtree, 19, were each awarded $1,000 from the Juanita Black Bursary Fund but had to drop out of university after their mother died. (Submitted by Soraya Patel-Crabtree - image credit)
Harbour View High School graduates David Patel-Crabtree, 21, and his sister, Soraya Patel-Crabtree, 19, were each awarded $1,000 from the Juanita Black Bursary Fund but had to drop out of university after their mother died. (Submitted by Soraya Patel-Crabtree - image credit)

A brother and sister who wanted to stay in New Brunswick and keep up their university studies in Saint John have had to put their dreams on hold while they try to recover from their mother's death.

David and Soraya Patel-Crabtree say this was not what they had planned when they graduated a year apart from Harbour View High School.

Even then, they had been struggling for years to provide care for their mother while trying to study and pay the bills and put food on the table.

But losing her last summer put them over the edge — financially, emotionally and mentally.

David had to leave the sciences program at the University of New Brunswick Saint John, and Soraya had to leave the nursing program.

Both were so broke and felt so broken, they returned to live with their father in Maine.

That's where the siblings had spent their childhoods with both parents until their mother left for New Brunswick when David was 11 and Soraya was nine.

A foot in the door

In 2015, the brother and sister became Canadian citizens and joined their mother in Saint John.

Their story unfolded when CBC News tracked them down as recipients of a relatively new bursary that was created to help students who grew up in difficult circumstances in Saint John's north end.

The bursary is named after Juanita Black, a longtime anti-poverty advocate who lives in Crescent Valley, a high-density public housing project where most families are trying to get by on social assistance.

David got a one-time Juanita Black bursary in 2018 worth $1,000, and Soraya got hers the following year.


Both have always felt grateful to their benefactor, and when they were contacted by CBC, they asked to pass a message along.

"Thank you for giving us a chance when we really didn't have much going for us," said David, now 21.

"Her bursary enabled us to at least start a university career. Even though it didn't quite go as planned, we got a foot in the door. We got a taste for it and we very much want to go back."

Tuition, books and food

David said getting the $1,000 bursary was a big deal.

"At that time, that was about a twelfth of our annual income," he said.

It helped him pay for tuition, textbooks and passes for the bus.

Soraya, now 19, said she also used the money for food when the cupboards were empty.

"If we needed grocery money, if we were really struggling and couldn't make it that month, I thought, 'OK, this can help our family,'" she said.

Soraya said her mother used to work as a personal support worker in a private home even though she suffered from a chronic health condition of her own.

Children as caregivers

Over the years, Rebecca Patel's health deteriorated to the point where she needed assistance with her basic needs.

David and Soraya became her caregivers, which sometimes meant sleepless nights.

It affected their mental health.

Soraya said the teachers at Harbour View knew their situation and were "absolutely amazing," delivering groceries to their door and providing gifts at Christmas.

David graduated as an honours student, and Soraya managed to get her grades into the 80s and 90s by Grade 12.

They knew their marks were decent but not the best in their class, so the bursaries surprised them both.

"Neither one of us was particularly amazing academically," David said.

"Looking back on it now, it feels good that someone would have confidence in us when other people might not."

Soraya wants Juanita Black to know how much it meant to have someone believe in them.

"And not just us, but other kids who come from the area and maybe aren't as well off as other classmates. I just want to thank her for her compassion."

'You sacrificed yourself for me'

By the time Soraya was in her second semester of nursing, it was becoming clear that something had to give.

David was the first to step away from school to care for his mother full time.

"Someone had to stay home with mum," Soraya said, turning to look at her brother, "And you sacrificed yourself."

"I wouldn't go as far as to say sacrifice myself," David said. "It was just at the point where someone can go to school and someone can't go to school. That's just how it is at the moment because of the level of care that was required. I just decided that person was going to be me."

Rebecca Patel died July 20, 2020, at the age of 55.

According to her obituary, she had emigrated to Canada with her parents from London, England, in 1965 and graduated from the Saint John School of Nursing in 1985.

At the time of her death, Soraya had already moved back to Maine.

Soraya said she felt bad leaving David and her mother, but by April 2020, she was feeling desperately overwhelmed.

"I was in a bad place emotionally and mentally. "Being a caregiver to your parent, the roles are reversed and it takes a toll on your mental health, and I'd been doing it for almost five years.

"I felt like I was abandoning her and David. I felt like I was abandoning both of them, but I really just couldn't keep doing what I was doing."

David tried to stay in New Brunswick after his mother died, but he couldn't make it beyond November.

Still working hard

He said a former teacher had taken him in, but David felt he could not continue to impose during a pandemic.

At the time, David was working at Sobeys and felt he was putting his teacher's family at risk.

Now he lives in Whiting with his dad and Soraya.

"It's a very, very small town just kind of tucked away in the woods," he said. "It has a population of 430 people."

Rachel Cave/CBC
Rachel Cave/CBC

Currently, Soraya is working to get her certified nursing assistant licence so she can apply for jobs in hospitals or nursing homes.

David is working in maintenance for a McDonald's restaurant that's "a few towns over."

He said he's saving money to try to move back to New Brunswick and pick up where he left off at school.

"This is very much a regrouping period for us," he said.

"My main goal is to save enough money so that I can come back to Saint John as soon as practicable to finish my education and carry on with my life."

University is 'expensive as heck'

Juanita Black said she was humbled to hear what the two siblings had experienced in their young lives and how they had cared for their mother.

She said she's not disappointed in them for having to drop out.

"I think they both deserve a lot of credit," she said. "I think it's honourable that they chose to look after their mother."

"You know, education can always come. You don't have to be educated when you're 19 or 20. You can be educated when you're 25 or 30. You can be educated when you're my age at 65. Just get it when you can."

Black said the foundation is always welcoming donations.

The recipient of the bursary that's given out each year is chosen by the guidance counsellors at Harbour View.

"They know the students," Black said. "They know their need.

"There's more to life than being a straight-A student or a top athlete. Sometimes there's people who look after their family and their community, and they just need a little break."